Misogyny 101

Female sexuality has always been a problem for men. First, there is the issue of paternity. After that, lust.

Since new life emerges from women's bodies, men can never be absolutely certain about the identity of the infant's biological father. Consequently, men are universally worried about paternity, a controversial explanation frequently offered as the rationale for patriarchal control over women's sexuality.

Second is the fundamental issue of female lust. In 1994, Geraldine Brooks wrote Nine Parts of Desire, taking the title from an Arab quotation, which claims that when Allah made sexuality, he gave women the biggest share. The early Christian clerics must have agreed because the myth surrounding original sin puts the entire blame on Eve, not Adam. Female sexuality might please men but it also unnerves and frightens them. In cultures influenced by Christian Puritanism, it results in a deeply rooted, often dangerous ambivalence in which carnality itself is unconsciously judged as degrading. Any woman who grew up in 1950s America remembers how girls were tagged as a "slut" if they "allowed" a boy to go "too far" while making out. Girls who "liked it" were considered easy and sought after by predatory guys but also severely judged as dark, negative and bad.

A fear of witches throughout Christian history was also linked to female sexuality, presuming that Satan was copulating with women inside the community. This happened at a time when Christianity's attitudes against sex had developed into full-blown misogyny. As it is stated in Malleus Maleficarum: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable."

Elvis Presley suffered censorship because of his "lewd" effect on adolescent girls, identical to the effect Frank Sinatra had on young women a decade earlier. Old kinescopes offer visual evidence of this rapture: explicit, "shameful" expressions of pure, unadulterated lust. Wille zum leben is what Schopenhauer called it: the will to create new life, to mate, to make sure that life continues. (Think of all those eggs waiting to be fertilized!)

If both paternity and lust make women a problem for men, it is easy to understand why some men find it necessary to give it gloss and a higher, nobler purpose by claiming women need "protection," i.e., monitoring and managing. Without it, they believe, there would be no civil order. By controlling women's sexuality, men control civilized society.

Consider vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example. He voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He (really) wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood. He would criminalize some forms of birth control. And he would outlaw in vitro fertilization.

Consider Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said pregnancies resulting from rape are part of God's plan. Consider NRSC chair John Cornyn who backs him up. Consider Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who added "legitimate rape" to our contemporary political glossary. All these guys want to reverse Roe vs. Wade and make safe medical abortion as difficult to get as it was 50 years ago.

Misogyny is much more than this, however. It finds a more nuanced explanation in moral psychology such as that offered by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues in The Righteous Mind. Haidt asks us to focus on the emotive centers of the brain as biological adaptations, necessary for human society to exist. Think of them as pillars holding up a building or in this case, moral foundations holding up society.

They are (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life, liberty and justice for all); (c) in-group/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates); and (e) purity/sanctity (related to the evolution of disgust that created diet laws and makes carnality degrading and renunciation noble); and lastly, (f) liberty/oppression (related to the desire for equality.)

Conservatives and liberals respond to different pillars in different degrees.

Haidt has a chart in The Righteous Mind that shows Conservatives putting equal weight on all six while Liberals ignore in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.

This would mean that conservatives value harm/care, but a close read of Haidt's provocative and engaging book makes this claim about conservatives difficult to believe, since the author offers very little evidence to support this.

Relevant to the discussion about women's sexuality is that conservatives -- and most Republicans identify as conservatives -- value in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. Patriarchy is traditional. It preserves the order of civil society in which men are assumed superior to women whom they must protect through laws and customs. In relation to purity/sanctity, unregulated sexuality may evoke feelings of disgust in the minds of conservatives because carnality is degrading and renunciation noble. Unmarried women shouldn't need contraception. Unmarried women shouldn't be having sex!

This might explain why conservative Republicans blocked Michigan legislator Lisa Brown from speaking on the state House floor as punishment for using the word vagina in a heated debate over abortion and contraception. Evidently, the very word "vagina" was so offensive, it prevented her from exercising her right of free speech.

Not all men want to control women's sexuality. Indeed, there are many enlightened men who truly accept women as equals and celebrate their sexuality. In the meantime, everyone is invited to open this website and hear veteran pop singerLesley Gore's timely message to Mitt Romney and America's Republicans.

They don't own us!